Intonation is all about the way we say something, rather than the words we actually say. Every language has a different melody and structure, so what’s unique about English? Here are 5 really typical features of British English intonation:
1. The high-fall ↘.
A very British melody, this is where the speaker begins high and drops low. It’s used on statements, questions, exclamations, just about everything. The higher you start, the more interested you’ll sound:
What a lovely surprise!
How was your weekend?
2. The implicational fall-rise ↘↗.
The English are (perhaps unfairly) famous for a reserved delivery, subtlety, possibly sarcasm. This pattern tells the listener that there is something beyond the words being spoken, a bit like saying “but” without saying “but”:
He’s a good dancer.
The main course was very good….
3. The big stress (tonic syllable)
There’s always a main stress in any English sentence (or speech unit). Volume, pitch and vowel length change to show stress and clear, expressive speakers use this very effectively in English:
I don’t believe it.
Could I ask you something?
What’s the point of making this sentence so long?
4. Statement tags ↘.
There is probably nothing more British than a statement tag, ↘is there? Just make any statement at all, it doesn’t matter, and add a falling tag at the end of it. It sounds good, ↘doesn’t it? And if you want to go a bit Cockney, don’t choose the auxiliary verb, just say ↘innit?
That’s a wall, isn’t it?
Maria’s gone home, hasn’t she?
It’s so English to qualify a statement with an adverbial word or phrase, like “basically”, “generally” or “on the whole”. If we say it before the phrase, it will have a fall-rising intonation, if we say it after the phrase, it has rising intonation:
↘↗Basically, I’ve had enough.
I’ve had enough, ↗basically.
↘↗Generally speaking, it’s warm in August.
It’s warm in August, ↗generally speaking.
This article uses English IPA symbols – learn each of them with pronunciation notes, diagrams and audio in Pronunciation Studio’s free Starter Pack.